Atlantoaxial Luxation

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Atlantoaxial luxation typically affects young, small breed dogs such as the Yorkshire Terrier, Toy Poodle, and Chihuahua but any breed or age can be affected. 

Symptoms may include neck pain, abnormal head carriage, weakness in all four legs, or inability to use the legs. Atlantoaxial luxation occurs when there is instability between the first and second cervical vertebrae (bones of the neck). These two bones are normally firmly attached to each other with a series of ligaments. Diagnosis is based on radiographs that demonstrate the instability, however, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) are useful in identifying concurrent problems and in surgical planning. Surgery offers the greatest chance of long-term resolution of signs.


The atlas is the first bone in the neck (C1). The axis is the second bone in the neck (C2). The atlas is unique from the other bones of the neck in that it has no dorsal spinous process and two large lateral processes (wings). The axis has a process, called the dens, that extends cranially. The atlas and the axis are connected to each other by a series of ligaments. In several toy breeds, the dens is malformed. With minimal or no trauma, the ligaments can fail and instability between the atlas and axis ensues. This leads to spinal cord compression.

Clinical Signs

Clinical signs of atlantoaxial luxation may include neck pain, abnormal head positions (head tilt, holding the head down, etc), wobbliness of all four legs, weakness of all four legs, inability to stand, or inability to move the legs.

What is Atlantoaxial Instability in Dogs?


Plain radiographs in a neutral and gently flexed positions can demonstrate instability in the C1-C2 joint. Myelography is contraindicated for several reasons: flexing the cervical spine excessively can exacerbate the compression, and myelography may cause seizures that can lead to serious complications. CT can show bony abnormalities such as a fracture of the dens and cranial displacement of the atlas into the foramen magnum. MRI is useful in identifying injuries to soft tissues and finding concurrent problems such as caudal occipital malformation syndrome, syringomyelia, and meningoencephalitis.


Flexed lateral radiograph. Note the gap between the first and second bone of the neck.


MRI of the neck demonstrating ‘kinking’ and compression of the spinal cord at C1-2.


Reconstructed CT showing malformation of C2 and dorsal deviation of the dens.


Surgical stabilization of the C1-C2 joint is considered the best long-term treatment. Surgery involves fusing the atlas to the axis with surgical screws and bone cement. Surgery is successful about 90% of the time, however, when complications occur, they are typically severe. Nonsurgical management involving six to eight weeks of crate rest and placement of a body splint has about a 50% success rate. Unfortunately, recurrence rates are high (40%), and complications from the bandage are possible.


Post operative radiograph showing proper alignment of C1-2 and stabilization using screws into C1 and C2


Prognosis is typically very good for patients that are treated successfully with surgery. The neurologists at Southeast Veterinary Neurology are expertly trained in the diagnosis and treatment of dogs with atlantoaxial instability.